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'God is interested in excellence'

With the church having largely forgotten the biblical doctrine of vocation, talented Christian musicians are finding support and fellowship elsewhere

WINONA LAKE, Ind. -- When American Christians try to engage the culture, they tend to embrace the pop culture: bringing rock 'n' roll music into the church; starting TV ministries; launching "entertainment evangelism." While quite at home in this shallow, content-indifferent, commercialized approach to culture, American Christians tend to be oblivious to - or even hostile toward - engagement with the "high culture."

But though some speak of "the art world," "the literary world," and "the academic world" as separate worlds, these networks of highly talented and accomplished people, for better or worse, influence and shape the entire culture through their intellectual and artistic creations.

Some devout Christians carry out their callings in these circles, witnessing to their colleagues, winning converts, exerting a positive influence through their talents and exercising their gifts for the glory of God and service to their neighbors.

They are often beleaguered, though, from two different sides. Despite how Christianity has shaped Western civilization, the realm of the arts and sciences today tends to be indifferent to or hostile toward the Christian faith. Christians in these fields feel isolated. And yet, despite the importance of their calling, they also tend to feel isolated in their churches, which often devalue their gifts and do not know how to give them the spiritual support they desperately need.

The Christian Performing Arts Fellowship (CPAF), a group of professional musicians scattered throughout the world's orchestras and ensembles, is among the ministries that work to overcome both kinds of isolation. The group has started MasterWorks, a program designed to help young musicians grow in their art and in their faith and to help them realize that the two can go together, hand in hand.

Patrick Kavanaugh - composer, conductor, and author of The Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers - founded CPAF in 1984, along with his wife, Barbara, and some fellow musicians.

Local CPAF chapters hold Bible studies for orchestra members, drawing in non-Christian colleagues with bulletin board invitations to studies of issues artists struggle with (e.g., "What does the Bible say about stage fright?"). CPAF members have put together "evangelistic concerts" for the public, performing in Washington, D.C., Russia, and the Middle East for both Jewish and Muslim audiences.

These Christian musicians began to see the importance of building up the next generation of Christian artists. So in 1997, CPAF started MasterWorks, a four-week music festival designed to give young musicians intensive, high-level training in their craft and in their Christian callings.

Students from high schools, colleges, and conservatories must pass rigorous auditions. Those selected study with CPAF faculty and guest instructors, all of whom are committed Christians who have found success in their fields. These include some big names: Stephen Clapp, the dean of Juilliard; Midori, the virtuoso violinist; Jahja Ling, the international conductor; Christopher Parkening, the classical guitarist; and other performers from America's greatest orchestras and artistic companies.

MasterWorks students take lessons on their instruments from these masters; they play in orchestras and chamber ensembles; they put on operas; and they study the Bible.

During its first years, MasterWorks was held at Houghton College in upstate New York, but for the last three years, it has found a home at Winona Lake, Ind., site of the old Billy Sunday "Christian Chautauqua" cultural programs. Local businessmen working to revive the community's cultural heritage invited CPAF and the festival to come to Winona Lake, where Grace College contributes the facilities and members of the local community crowd into the concerts.

This year, 185 students studied at MasterWorks, taught by 70 faculty. Another MasterWorks Festival, which has been attracting more and more international students, will be held later this summer in London.

According to Mr. Kavanaugh, the head of CPAF who is also executive director of MasterWorks, the high-powered faculty love to come to MasterWorks, even though they do not earn even a fraction of what they normally receive, for the same reason students keep coming (and returning) year after year. They both crave the opportunity to relate their music and their faith. In their musical lives, they are with people who love music but do not love the Lord. In their churches, they are with people who love the Lord but do not love music. Here, both faculty and students find kindred spirits who love both music and the Lord.

While CPAF is careful not to become a substitute for the local church, it does offer the fellowship and mutual consolation that many local churches, having forgotten the doctrine of vocation, do not. "Over and over again," Mr. Kavanaugh said, when a musician comes to Christ through the efforts of CPAF, "within months, her pastor will take her aside and tell her that now that she has become a Christian, she needs to leave the opera and go into Christian music."

Bethany Brestel, a young clarinetist, told WORLD that a friend in her church said to her that if she wasn't using her musical gifts for the church, she was sinning.

Mr. Kavanaugh says that many Christian musicians, from successful , acclaimed professionals to young people just discovering their musical gifts, struggle with guilt, as if the only way to serve God is in "church work" professions. That is nothing more, of course, than medieval Catholicism, in stark contrast to the Reformation teachings that God also calls and equips Christians to serve Him out in the world.

Churches that want their members to spend all of their talents in the church are, in the words of Mr. Kavanaugh, "putting the salt back into the salt shaker." God wants Christians to be the salt of the earth, to influence and evangelize beyond the walls of the church building. Another point of frustration is that churches often show little understanding for what Mr. Kavanaugh calls "biblical excellence."

In order to break into the ranks of the professionals, a musician must be very, very good. MasterWorks insists on high standards, and their standards are climbing higher every year. More are turned down than accepted. Whereupon, Mr. Kavanaugh hears from the pastors of those who did not make the grade. "How can you call yourself a Christian organization," they say, "when you don't let everybody in?"

True, it is usually not necessary to pass an audition in order to sing in the choir. But objective standards are something Christians should believe in.

John Kasica, the principal percussionist for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and a faculty member at MasterWorks, stresses how important it is to help Christians understand that "God is interested in excellence."

Mr. Kavanaugh considers CPAF and MasterWorks missionary organizations, operating "vocationally rather than locationally." The young musicians do talk about winning other musicians to Christ. Excellence with their instruments is a way to break into this closed community and to gain respect and a hearing for the gospel. As Titus Underwood, an oboist from Florida put it, "They don't want to hear you if you don't sound good."

And the music world needs saving. "Music is a very dark place," said Tate Olsen, a cellist from Pittsburgh. It is not just the secularism and the moral permissiveness of the art scene. Being a musician, especially being a great musician, has temptations of its own. Musicians tend to be egocentric, he explained. "It's all about you taking the spotlight." As Jennifer Peck, a flautist from Oklahoma put it, accountants don't get applause for a good set of books. Musicians live for applause. This feeds pride. And yet, the music world tears down the self, just as it builds it up. There is no more competitive, dog-eat-dog profession than music, where 200 people might try out for a single opening in an orchestra. The stress and the wear and tear on self-esteem can be unbearable.

At MasterWorks, the spirit of rivalry fades. There is still competition for parts and solos, but, said Megan Gilmore, a trombonist who became a Christian thanks to MasterWorks, "Everyone is cheering for everyone else. We are so happy to see how the Lord has blessed others in their talent."

The students admit that there is no particularly Christian way to be a musician. "The only difference between us and a non-Christian is that we know Jesus. That's it," said Jason Niehoff, a percussionist. But there is a difference in attitude and motivation. The Christian knows that "it's not about me on stage. God has given me this talent and enabled me to use it." Getting the self out of the music helps them as performers, several of the students told WORLD. The pressure eases. The worry about what other people think of me fades. The joy is found in the music itself. Performing becomes an occasion to glorify God.

Elizbieta Brandys, a flautist from Poland, asked, "To whom do we play our music? For ourselves or for God?" Music is created by God. "We are the tools to express that music."

The students saw the music world not just as a mission field; rather, music is valuable in itself as a gift of God. Said Robert Nicholson, a Florida cellist, "The beauty that we like points us to God, the author of beauty." Not just explicitly religious music like masses and requiems, but all great music, even that written without a religious intent or by non-Christians, owes its beauty to God. "Even if the composer didn't connect it to God, we can," said Kristina Lobenhofer, a pianist from Ohio. "A good performance can."

What about pop music, what most of their friends are listening to? Some admitted to enjoying pop music in its place. But there is a difference, said Miss Lobenhofer, between art and entertainment. Art makes us pay attention to something eternal. Entertainment, though, diverts us from the eternal.

The students see their music ability as a gift from God and, thus, as a function of their calling. "Music is exactly what He wants me to do," said Mr. Niehoff. "If He wants me to be in an orchestra, that will happen." If it doesn't, God simply wants him to be somewhere else.

But the doctrine of vocation also has to do with loving and serving one's neighbor. How does music and all of the hard, solitary work that goes along with practice and performance do any good to anyone else? The neighbor that a performing artist is to love and serve, according to several of the students, is the audience.

According to Miss Lobenhofer, "when we think of the audience, our performance is better." The music is "a gift we give to them." When she performs, she is giving something both to God and to her neighbors who are enjoying her music.

Miss Peck went even further into the doctrine of vocation. In the grueling work that goes into a seemingly effortless performance - these students typically practice six hours a day - we are, she said, "sacrificing ourselves to give something beautiful to the audience."

It is in vocation, among other places, that we present our bodies as a "living sacrifice" (Romans 12:1). This is true whether our calling is to be a musician or factory worker or business executive or citizen or parent or spouse, or some combination of these vocations. We must sacrifice ourselves for our neighbor in all of them, an often small act of self-denying love that is a cross-bearing, a sign in our everyday lives of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Miss Brandys told WORLD that MasterWorks has helped her learn how to become a professional, how to become an artist, more so even than the conservatory where she studies through the year. She says that MasterWorks has helped her to grow spiritually, musically, and artistically - all together, as she learns how all three are connected.

Understanding such connections is important for Christians in all vocations and for the church as a whole. If we would cultivate the particular gifts God has given to us and if we would exercise our callings as God intends, Christians might once again have an impact on the culture as we once did. As Christian artists such as Bach, Handel, Mendelsohn, and Haydn did.

Gene Edward Veith

Gene Edward Veith

Gene is a former WORLD culture editor.